What are advance fee frauds?

How do advance fee frauds work?

E-mail scams are big business. One of the most familiar Internet scams is the “Nigerian” 419 scam, often associated with countries in Africa but now carried on by scammers all around the world.

All these Nigerian-style scams, no matter what country they actually originate from, are examples of advance fee fraud. They are sometimes called “419” or “4-1-9” scams because in Nigeria they fall under section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code, the section that deals with fraud. Although people all over the world now engage in this kind of fraud, the “419” label is a convenient one to apply to this class of fraud as a whole.

Suppose I’m a con artist and I want to separate you from your money. One of the most reliable ways to do this is to promise you more money, if only you’ll help me out by sending me an advance fee.

So first, I type up a phony email message that says I am the son of a deposed African dictator, and I have millions of dollars trapped in a secret bank account. Because there are so many corrupt officials watching my every move, I need a neutral third party (you, sucker) to get the money out of the country for me. If you do that (sucker), I’ll pay you 40% of the total. Then I send my phony message as spam (unsolicited junk email) to thousands or millions of random addresses all over the world. That’s stage one.

If you take the bait and reply to my message, stage two begins. I thank you profusely for your help, and assure you that we will both profit handsomely if only we can keep this confidential. But time is short. The corrupt police are after this money too, and we have to get it before they do. If you just cooperate and work quickly (sucker), you’ll have your portion in just a few days. The money is almost ready to be transferred.

But there’s just one catch. The bank manager, see, is giving me trouble. He wants a bribe to release the money. I have no cash, since it’s all locked up in the bank deposit. If you (sucker) can just wire me $1000 to bribe the bank manager, we’ll be all set and the transfer will take place tomorrow. You and I will both be millionaires!

If you fall into the trap and wire the money, can you guess what will happen next? The deposed dictator’s son will disappear, throwing away the $20 cell phone he was using to take your calls. The foreign bank you wired the money to will tell you the money has already been withdrawn and the account has been closed. The owner left no forwarding address. Millions on deposit? There are no millions and there never were. The game is over: the scammer has your money and he has vanished.

It’s easy to see how a thousand variations of this same general scam can be run. Instead of the son of a deposed African dictator, it’s a dying woman with cancer who wants to give her money to charity; or a soldier in Iraq who wants to smuggle out some cash; or a corrupt official who has an over-invoiced contract that he’d like to cut you in on; or a white farmer in Zimbabwe whose land has been confiscated; or the attorney of a plane crash victim who is trying to locate next-of-kin; and on and on.

Do you think these scams operate in the shadows? Not at all; there’s even a hit song in Nigeria that takes the side of the scammers against the (supposedly) rich westerners—the “mugus” or suckers—who are being conned. It’s a very catchy tune, that’s for sure. It’s called I Go Chop Your Dollar. The punch line? “I go take your money, disappear. You be the mugu, I be the master.”

Do people fall for these scams? You bet they do. If they didn’t, the business of spam wouldn’t exist. It’s as simple as that.

—The Scam Hunter